Transcript: Sohrab Ahmari
My interview with the American author and editor
In the past few decades, something has gone wrong in American life, leaving its citizens subject to increasing levels of coercion.
That’s the thesis of a new book, and its author, my guest on this week’s program, argues that what’s gone wrong is a form of private tyranny, with corporations exercising more and more control over ordinary people’s lives — eroding our freedoms and generating uncertainty, stress, and economic precarity.
Sohrab Ahmari is a founder and editor at Compact Magazine. His new book is Tyranny, Inc. — How Private Power Crushed American Liberty — and What to Do About It.
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the episode for free here.
TH: Sohrab, welcome back to Lean Out.
SA: Thanks for having me, Tara.
TH: It's very nice to have you back on the program. As I've told you, this book really helped me to understand some things that I've been grappling with — and have not been able to untangle. I'm really excited to talk about it today. Let's start with the concept of tyranny. I think the first instinct of some readers might be to think that it's a bit hyperbolic to say that tyranny is at work in America, since the society is fundamentally based on consent rather than coercion. A good way to get into that conversation is to look at two opening examples from Tyranny, Inc., from two other countries, China and Russia. In one, a meatpacker in a Chinese slaughterhouse attempts to resist the state-owned company's oppressive policies during COVID. In another, a Russian employee of a state-run energy company is forced to attend a Putin rally. Walk us through these two examples, and what they can tell us about the state of American liberty.
SA: Sure, happily. Let me just start with those two examples. It's one of the tricks — and it's not the only time this happens in the book — where I set up something that people in the United States, or in North America, are used to viewing through a familiar frame of “tyranny is what happens over there, in these foreign lands with governments that lack checks and balances like our own.” And then I reveal that the story that you just heard is actually something that took place in the U.S.
All I did was I took actual news reports from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and I just changed the names and the geographical backdrop — but otherwise, I almost quoted them verbatim. And so, if you look at these incidents in that geographic frame of mind, they lull you into complacency: “Oh, yes, this Chinese company fired an employee. It's a state-owned company, so it answers to the Communist Party, and it fired an employee because he objected to their COVID protocols and just in general wanted more sanitation as the pandemic was unfolding.” This is before we understood COVID mitigation as we do now. This was in March and April of 2020. He was fired for that — for this kind of activism. It turns out that did not happen in a Communist Party-owned slaughterhouse. That happened in New York, on Staten Island at the JFK8 facility of Amazon, and the employee who was fired is named Christian Smalls. He's now become a union organizer.
Likewise, the Russian story — it wasn't Putin who demanded that workers at a state-owned energy company show up to one of his rallies on pain of losing pay. That happened in the United States under Trump, with Shell and its workers in Pennsylvania, who were forced to do that. One of the messages of the book is that there is such a thing as private tyranny, as privatized tyranny, or private coercion. Coercion is inevitable in our everyday life, in any kind of society. But it becomes tyrannical when it's merely for the benefit of either a politician or a private actor.
I try to argue that we should lose this tendency to draw a sharp distinction between public and private, especially in societies like ours, like the United States or Canada or Europe, where the private sector is quite large and it's where you spend most of your time. That's where often we will face this kind of unjust coercion.
TH: I chose to replicate that opening rhetorical device because I did think it was so effective in illustrating why people have perhaps become so angry in an apparently free society. But also because these examples implicate both sides of the political spectrum and show that this dynamic is increasingly prevalent in the private sector — not just the workplace, but also the experience we all have as customers and citizens. There are a few lines that really stood out in the book's introduction, which I'll read now: "Our most profitable companies are very good at delivering certain types of experiences, mainly instantaneity of all kinds, be it food delivery or porn. But the kaleidoscopic novelty somehow coexists with shockingly decrepit public infrastructure, the public services and facilities that supply the necessities of life and allow us to get around, stay healthy, and live in community. All this, while a relatively narrow elite lords over a class hierarchy whose obscene disparities would have left the plutocrats of the Gilded Age blushing." And, as you point out, who consented to all of that? Can you unpack that for us?
SA: Yeah, so, defenders of our present political-economic arrangements — it has a name, it's neoliberalism, and we can go into how it differs from old-fashioned classical liberalism, but it is the neoliberal order. They often say it's a democratic society, and therefore, that legitimates all of this.
But a lot of these developments, because they took place through the supposedly neutral and invisible hand of the market, there's no political give and take. What give and take do you have when you're suddenly barred from speaking on a privately-owned social media platform, whether the owner is a right-wing Elon Musk or a left-wing Jack Dorsey? What degree of democratic leverage or ability to engage in back-and-forth did you really have when you were forced to sign a terms of service agreement that is the length of a Tolstoy novel? You click agree. Now, the typical defender of the system says it's your free choice. You can choose not to. But there's no escaping it; if you want to actually be heard in a meaningful way, you do it on these platforms. And that's just one example.
As that passage that you read points out, there is this bizarre disparity between our technological prowess in a narrow way in the digital realm … You know, we have apps that can do incredible things. But that goes along with increasingly decrepit public infrastructure. I suggest there's a reason for that. Because that's where — that empty app economy, a virtual economy that doesn't produce anything of real lasting value — it’s where a lot of the investment has gone. That itself is engineered. It's not an inevitable thing. Through our tax codes, through our labour laws, through all sorts of things, we've subsidized and incentivized those quick buck economic activities. Whether it's Silicon Valley's meaningless, addictive apps, or it's Wall Street's corrosive effects on the real economy, on the manufacturing economy, et cetera.
None of this is inevitable. It's not the result of natural developments. They are the results of political choices, over which ordinary citizens had very little democratic voice. We've lost that democratic voice in our political economy.
TH: You focus on the workplace quite a bit, which is super interesting because the coercion in the workplace is something that most people will be familiar with. I was thinking, as I was reading this, of an office that I worked in. There are strict labour laws on overtime in Ontario, where I live. But every couple of months, the company sent an email, in which we had to click “agree” that we were actually working the set amount of hours and not working overtime — [but] we were working overtime. In that instance, as you point out in the book, there's an asymmetry there. There's the worker who needs to pay their bills, who needs to put a roof over their head. And then there are these massive companies. That's not really a level playing field. There was an interesting example in your book, the story of Alicia Fleming. This has to do with scheduling work hours with zero regard for workers' well-being. Tell us that story.
SA: Alicia Fleming was a restaurant worker in Massachusetts. She went into that line of work when she was a teenager, and then gradually went up the chain, as it were, of the quality of the restaurants. It was all working well — despite the flexibility that the industry increasingly demands — until she became a mother. And then, suddenly the work-life balance became a crucible of stress and misery.
The reason for that is that, like many other industries, but especially the service industry — where something like a tenth of the American working population is engaged in retail and service, including restaurants — has gradually shifted toward a model of what's called “just-in-time scheduling,” often with the help of computer algorithms. The point is to minimize labour costs for employers, taking into account periods of low demand. It's a way to shift all the expenses associated with periods of low demand onto the worker.
It used to be that both employer and employee, they would both pay a price when there aren't customers. If you give your workers a regular schedule — that they have control over and some sense of predictability over when they come in — if you do that, then you both take a hit when there isn't enough demand. But what companies have tried to do in the service industry, increasingly, is to shift all the expenses and all the downsides to employees by having these shifts that are very last minute. So that a third of such workers don't know their schedule until just days before. And others similarly have this precarious sense, on a weekly basis, of what they're going to do. They don't know their schedule. Or, they do these things where the shift is cancelled last minute if demand doesn't materialize. Or they do what's called “clopening shifts,” where the employees are only asked to come in for the opening and closing of the shop — but not for that middle period, where the demand might be low, or labour might be low. Imagine what that would do to your day, Tara. Like if you had to come in from 2:00 to 3.30, and then go home and then come back like 6:00 to 8:00 when it's dinnertime, or whatever. You would have no sense of regularity.
Sure enough, there's been a lot of studies done that show workers who are subjected to this just-in-time scheduling are more likely to be depressed, to sleep poorly. Their children tend to misbehave, to show signs of anxiety in school, to act out, to fight, to break things. It doesn't take rocket science to explain that. Because typically the parents don't have the ability to regularly spend time with them, or do homework, or what have you.
And as you said, the reason that this has come about, and workers have had to put up with it, is because of a gradual loss over several decades of workers' bargaining power. Because there aren't unions in the picture, especially in the service industry. And in all sorts of other ways, our laws increasingly advantage employers. You really are at the mercy of employers. There's a basic asymmetry in the market, that you mentioned. Typically in any market, there are far fewer employers than there are employees. So, there are far fewer buyers of wage labour power than there are sellers of labour power.
How that disparity works out is that any one employee is much more dispensable and has to put up with what's on offer — you know, take it or leave it — compared with situations where workers can join hands and collectively bargain. But that's become very hard in the United States, as our laws have made unionization hard.
So, it's just one example of coercion. People think about coercion as what the tax man does, or what the police do, or what dictatorial foreign governments do. But your employer can coerce you quite dramatically.
TH: One of the ways that employers do that is through employment contracts. What were some of the more egregious clauses that you found in employment contracts?
SA: Nowadays, when you get a job, typically the offer comes in an email, "We'd love for you to join. The salary will be, say, $75,000 a year. We'd love you to start in two weeks." You've trekked maybe across the town, across the country, across the province or state, and you show up to work. And then, at that point, they give you all these agreements. Again, it's a take-it-or-leave-it scenario.
In libertarian economic theory, the picture that they paint for you is that, at that point, you have the ability to negotiate and mutually come to an agreement on various clauses. No one does that. The advantage is all on the employer’s side. You've already given up your previous job. You've maybe moved across the country, bought a new house, taken out a new lease or a car or whatever, and you just sign. What do you typically sign away? Increasingly, it's an enormous amount of surveillance. For example, the use of key logger software to track everything you type. The ability to inspect and even confiscate your device, whether that's their laptop or your phone. That extends to your personal devices as well. If you use their networks, your device is subject to confiscation and surveillance. And they encourage you, by the way, to use your personal devices. That's a very interesting example because, again, we're used to thinking of surveillance as what spy agencies do, or surveillance is what the Chinese government or the Russian government or Iranian government does to its citizens. Certainly, it's true, but in the American context, it's a private actor who can typically subject you to pretty thorough surveillance.
Another one that I thought was pretty egregious — I found it in the employment agreement of a major, major company. The person who gave it to me was a lawyer and was involved in a case against them, so I can't reveal the name of the company. But the bottom line is that you sign over the right to, essentially, your persona, everything to do with who you are — your face, your voice, your singing voice, et cetera. Now, why would they want that?
Typically, in a more innocent age, that was because they wanted to use your picture in a training video, or in a recruitment brochure. But this contract says it's for commercial licensing and that you have no right of recourse. You can't sue the person to whom your image or voice or likeness et cetera is licensed to. You can't sue them for privacy, for manipulating your picture and putting it in something that you don't want. It's for commercial purposes, because now there is a huge market for digital human likeness data. All these companies would love to use your voice to improve their services, like Siri et cetera. But theoretically, your picture could be leased or licensed to a company that does digitally-altered, doctored, pornography. You would technically — if the courts in the United States went by the strict freedom of contract, liberty of contract mentality, or framework — then you have no recourse against that, because you signed your agreement. You said that you license your likeness to your employer, who then is allowed to license it to any other third party, and in perpetuity. You have no recourse to complain against either the employer, or the party that subsequently took ownership of your likeness data. And your right is denied in perpetuity, forever.
Again, think about the disparity that structures that relationship. The disparity in power. You just moved across the country, you signed a new lease, you signed a new lease on a car, et cetera. You show up to work the first day, and they put this in front of you. You have to sign. No one refuses to sign, and says, "Actually, I disagree with this particular provision. Can we strike it out?"
TH: It's wild. Then, of course, the courts are involved in all of this as well. To illustrate an issue with the American courts, you turn to a Canadian example, the story of Toronto's David Heller. Tell us a little bit about that and what it tells us about what's going on in the American court system.